On Sunday, famed British conductor Sir Simon Rattle reaches what in many sectors is considered retirement age. But the head of the London Symphony Orchestra seems far from leaving it all behind.
A normal day? On January 19, Sir Simon Rattle begins a new year of life at the conductor's podium in London's Barbican Centre — conducting a concert with music by Beethoven and Alban Berg. As usual, his rehearsal earlier in the day is open to the public.
Freeing classical music from the exclusive, elitist aura and making it accessible to a broader public have always been goals of this conductor, also during his 16 years as music director and principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.
Liverpool, Birmingham, Berlin
Born into a family of musicians in the English city of Liverpool on January 19, 1955, Rattle took up studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London at the age of 16, focusing on piano, percussion and orchestra direction. Completing his studies in 1974, he won the John Player International Conducting Competition and was hired as an assistant with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, later with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1980, the 25-year-old was named principal conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra — and in the following 18 years, he led the provincial ensemble to world fame. Iron discipline, boundless curiosity and a blend of classical and modern repertories was the recipe for success, along with his seemingly limitless energy and enthusiasm.
In an interview with Radio Bavaria in 2004, Rattle confirmed: "I am a veritable optimistic maniac." In a more recent webchat with The Guardian, Rattle explained his motivation: Life in a 21st century orchestra isn't about "giving magnificent concerts" but about "being a disciple for the cause."
In that cause — classical music — Rattle received formative influence in the 1980s from the German conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt. "In some ways he provided me with one of my St. Paul on the Road to Damascus moments: Hearing Nikolaus perform and realizing that there was a whole world which I needed to go back and explore. Harnoncourt opened my eyes to what the historically informed performance movement represented and meant. So this sent me back to books, sent me back to the harpsichord, it sent me to study the baroque violin."
Meanwhile, the success of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was noted by the royal family, with Queen Elizabeth knighting Rattle in 1994.
Five years later, the members of the Berlin Philharmonic elected Rattle their new principal conductor, and in 2002 he succeeded Claudio Abbado as the sixth principal in the orchestra's history.
The most beautiful conductor's job — and the most difficult
Admiration combined with critical distance, Rattle quoted an important predecessor in an interview for DW: "Herbert von Karajan at one point said: 'Make no mistake. I am not an elitist. I am a super-elitist" — a reference to Karajan's artistic goals with the Berlin Philharmonic, considered the best orchestra in Germany and maybe even in the world. Added Rattle, "I remember sitting in this very room, opposite Karajan, who said to me: 'The thing about this group is that if you put 10% in, the orchestra will give you 90% back.'"
It was the beginning of an energetic and sometimes turbulent period. In the Rattle era, the Berlin Philharmonic were very elitist in sound quality and artistic goals, but never in public image.
Early on, the new principal initiated the Berlin Philharmonic's Education Program. One of its notable projects was incorporating young people from socially disadvantaged parts of the city into music and dance projects, as was impressively documented in the film Rhythm is It!, which reached an audience of over a million.
The outreach extended also to hospitals and schools, where orchestra musicians would perform and explain their profession — shaming German educational policy for having allowed music education to fall into decline. In the Digital Concert Hall, performances of the Berlin Philharmonic could now be seen worldwide, and the orchestra founded its own label. In 2004, Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic were named UNICEF Ambassadors, the first time that honor had been given to an artistic ensemble.
In his 16-year tenure, this conductor had 1,100 concert performances with the Berlin Philharmonic — and he opened up a new repertory to the orchestra. It included English and Nordic composers that had been missing from previous playbills, Haydn and Mozart — and much contemporary music; at one point, the American composer John Adams was composer in residence. The German daily Die Welt named Rattle a "glutton for repertoire."
Rattle also puts himself in the service of furthering human rights — such as in this video from the International Literature Film Festival in Berlin
What fell out of focus — at least in the view of some inside and outside the orchestra — was the Berlin Philharmonic's traditional repertory: the German Romantics. Criticism erupted in the orchestra's ranks and among critics around 2006, to the effect that the Berlin Philharmonic's unique sound wasn't unique any more: it had become, in what it performed and how it performed it, globalized and interchangeable.
"Everybody is a soloist within their own right. There is not such a thing as 'leaders' and 'followers' here, it's all leaders," is how Rattle described that body of musicians not lacking in self-confidence.
In an interview with Die Welt in 2015, he elaborated: "It is at once the world's most beautiful and most difficult conducting job. Usually at the same time. They don't ask, 'How?' They ask, 'Why?' That's why I love working with them."
That special moment
Rattle weathered the controversy and served up many special moments for audiences in Berlin and on tour worldwide. The most often mentioned highlights include the performances of Bach's Passions staged by Peter Sellars and of The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky.
In 2013, Rattle surprisingly announced his intention not to extend his contract with the Philharmonic, moving on instead to the London Symphony Orchestra in 2017. "Rattle's appointment is precisely the seismic, creative shock that classical music needs," wrote The Guardian. In August 2019, Kirill Petrenko succeeded Rattle at the helm in Berlin.
The Englishman and his third wife, mezzo soprano Magdalena Kozena, retain their home in Berlin, and Rattle now spends a few months a year in London. Further projects with the Berlin Philharmonic — and with the National Youth Orchestra of Germany, of which he was named honorary conductor in 2018 — keep him in touch with German audiences.
The decision in favor of London was made only months before the Brexit referendum in June 2016. Would he have signed the contract had he known the outcome? "Good question," was the simple answer.
Apart from London and Berlin, Rattle is often to be seen in the US, initially with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony, more frequently now with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He also regularly appears with the Vienna Philharmonic — with which he recorded the complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies — and is principal artist of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Great Britain.
With all his energy, curiosity and joy in discovery, there are certain moments that stand out most in Rattle's memory. "There is certainly something that happens in this hall," — i.e., the Berlin Philharmonie — with this orchestra, where people become simply overcome by the spirit of music making. And we all know when it's happened, because suddenly the thing moves into another gear."
At 65, Sir Simon Rattle seems locked in turbo gear.